The Increasing Ethnic Divide Between Schools Undermines Multiculturalism

A new study has documented increasing social and cultural polarisation within the public school system. Not only are middle-class parents opting out of local public schools in favour of private schools, but they are also opting out of some public schools in favour of others. The study shows that the increasing divide is undermining multiculturalism.

The study demonstrates that this process is happening even within suburbs. It is an interesting case study of how the aspirations and practices of white middle class parents pre-dominate even in culturally diverse schools. The study is published in the latest issue of the Journal of Intercultural Studies.

The researchers did a detailed study of two schools within one gentrifying Sydney suburb, examining how the schools have become more socially polarised. One school, “Cooper Creek”, has become a highly desirable school for white middle-class gentrifiers, while the other school, “Cooper Hill” has come to be seen as the ‘poor cousin’ school.

This polarisation is evident in two main ways. First, the majority of Cooper Creek’s families (60 per cent) are high income earners (within the top quarter income earners nationally). This is double the proportion at Cooper Hill (30 per cent). This difference is striking given that Census figures show that income profiles of the two schools’ catchment areas are virtually identical.

Second, as Cooper Creek’s families have grown wealthier, they have also become whiter, with the proportion from a language background other than English (LBOTE) dropping to 29 per cent. At Cooper Hill, while LBOTE levels have been falling, LBOTE students still comprise a majority of the school, at 64 per cent. In both schools’ catchment areas, Census figures show that approximately 55 per cent speak a non-English language (ABS 2011 Census). So Cooper Creek is disproportionately Anglo compared to its neighbourhood, while Cooper Hill is disproportionately non-Anglo.

School segregation is therefore more pronounced than neighbourhood segregation. In other words, the neighbourhoods of the two schools are more culturally mixed than the school communities. This corroborates international research showing that education systems with school choice have schools with higher levels of economic, ethnic, and ability segregation than the levels in the neighbourhoods in which children reside.

The polarisation of the school communities largely reflects active choice among white middle-class families to send their children to Cooper Creek, given that the distance between the two schools is just one kilometre, and that their catchment areas are virtually identical on all major indicators (income, education, labour market status, occupation, and ethnicity).

The paper examines the implications of this division in terms of the ethnic composition of the two schools, and everyday multiculturalism within each school. The authors identified two distinct types of multiculturalism practised across both schools, which are also affected by class.

At Cooper Creek, the influx of white middle-class parents has dramatically reduced cultural diversity, in the words of one parent, “the middle-class Anglo […] is shoving that diversity out the door”. The school is on the way to becoming an island of white middle-class privilege in a culturally diverse suburb.

Revealingly, in response to the researchers’ question, “What are the best aspects of the school?”, every respondent from Cooper Creek cited the parent community, or the community values. Although almost a third of the school’s students are from a non-English-speaking background, multiculturalism did not feature in how the survey respondents spoke about the school community.

Parents in the school appreciate cultural diversity but tend to value cross-cultural competency as a professional asset. They see it important for the school to foster “cosmopolitan capital”. This is evident in the decision of the P&C to introduce its own foreign language classes before and after school in five languages: Spanish, German, Arabic, Greek and Chinese. Most languages reflect the families present in the school, with the exception of Chinese. Chinese is offered not as a community language, but as a language with obvious future professional applications.

The school’s cosmopolitan credentials are also evident in its success in the annual state-wide Multicultural Perspectives Public Speaking Competition, where students prepare speeches on set multicultural topics. In his interview, Cooper Creek’s principal proudly highlighted the school’s record in producing finalists in this competition. Yet, as one of the survey respondents, an Anglo-Australian mother, said:

Every year you see the whitest, most Anglo-Saxon kids standing up, winning that competition, talking about the United Nations Conventions, with no basis from their own life experience, and the kids who really have a greater insight into that are completely silent and…it’s quite awful…So I think there’s a dominant culture in the school that does silence a lot of the actual diversity that is there.

The authors of the study describe this dominant form of multiculturalism in the school as “cosmo-multiculturalism”, or multiculturalism without migrants.

The multicultural practice at Cooper Hill is very different. The community appeared to view multicultural engagement as an implicit part of people’s everyday lives in the school. The school has a majority of students from language backgrounds other than English, representing about 40 different ethnicities. The principal and the school community said that multiculturalism was central to the school’s identity. In response to the question, “What are the best aspects of this school?”, the vast majority of Cooper Hill parents discussed cultural diversity.

Around a third of Cooper Hill’s students come from a white background. The principal said that she valued the way that such parents, in her view, worked to “embrace” this aspect of the school “rather than transform it”. This was echoed by the parent respondents.

However, there was also evidence of a growing cultural divide in the school. Respondents from non-Anglo migrant backgrounds all talked about the recent arrival of white Australians into the school community within the last five or so years. It was felt that their presence had changed the social dynamic of the school community. These interviewees effectively divided the school community into “whites” and “migrants”, and were somewhat frustrated with the sometimes exclusivist behaviour of white parents.

This division is most evident in the P&C, which is comprised almost entirely of white parents. Many interviewees commented that this group was “unrepresentative” of the school.

While interviewees spoke about this division primarily in ethnic terms, it was apparent that these experiences were shaped by class factors. The migrant parents interviewed were more likely to be employed in low-paid service sector work, or primary carers without an independent source of income. The white Australians they viewed as excluding and/or avoiding them were highly educated and from middle-class, professional backgrounds. The white parents appeared to have recreated a particular type of middle-class culture. They were generally highly skilled people and, as the principal observed, they “go to meetings for a living”. Their confidence was experienced as a form of exclusion by parents from working-class migrant backgrounds.

Ethnic mixing in the school occurs more extensively among non-Anglo families. Although the Anglo parents valued diversity, some expressed “disappointment” that their friendship circles did not reflect the full diversity of the school.

The authors conclude that while the higher levels of cultural diversity at Cooper Hill allow for more interactions approximating everyday multiculturalism, compared to Cooper Creek, the everyday mixing appears to be concentrated among migrants. At Cooper Creek though the numerical dominance of Anglo-Australians has meant that “cosmo-multiculturalism” has become the dominant approach.

The results of the study mirror European research showing that gentrifiers who profess to value diversity often do not have culturally diverse social networks. Rather than being microcosms of the community, schools are increasingly divided by class and ethnicity. As the authors say, the growing social and ethnic divide between schools has worrying implications for multicultural social relations and for social justice.

Trevor Cobbold

Christina Ho, Eve Vincent & Rose Butler, Everyday and Cosmo-Multiculturalisms: Doing Diversity in Gentrifying School Communities. Journal of Intercultural Studies, Vol. 36, No. 6, Dec 2015, 658–675.

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